June 15, 2009

Miroslav Tichý: The Artful Voyeur


An outsider by choice and temperament, at odds with the expectations of the communist regime in his native Czechoslovakia, Miroslav Tichý became a kind of social cipher – a man who cast no shadow, but slipped along the margins of other lives, almost unseen and hardly leaving any trace – except, of course, for the countless extraordinary photographs he has made, a body of work which is perhaps unique in the medium, a work of obsession that seems to have grown so large as to dominate how its creator saw and related to the world. The story of how his work came to be “discovered” is no more surprising or unlikely as any story of that sort, but what stands out is the fact that it has happened at all, in light of his obvious reluctance to pursue any measure of recognition. Yet as these photographs become more widely known it is their outwardly predatory character (especially with the photographs of young girls) that will no doubt attract plenty of attention. Their voyeurism is, of course, troubling – some may even find his behaviour repellent and one cannot deny or condone it, yet in its context we can try, at least, to understand it.

There has also been a certain eagerness to paint Tichý as some kind of savant, merely working in thrall to his obsession or worse, as an “outsider” artist and so not really capable of reflecting on the implications of what he has done. Yet given his academy background and the self-consciousness of his approach to making pictures (so attuned to performance on both sides of the camera) he is clearly neither of these. Such popular (to say nothing of profitable) myths around the artist and his work have only served to obscure, for now at least, the real value of what he has achieved. While at his advanced age it seems that Tichý no longer makes photographs, or that photography was only ever a small part of his artistic output, a fever that passed, leaving him free to pursue other interests. But which also left him, in turn, with a vast trove of images, and this has proved a deep seam to be worked by dealers and curators who must surely feel as if they have struck gold. There is, no doubt, a slightly cynical air about how Tichý and his work have been promoted – with only scant attention paid to what the work itself implies in a wider sense. Seen in its social context and knowing Tichý’s own history, what emerges is one man pitting his own obsessions again the monolithic interests of the state, it is the kind of defiance that amounts to a covert political gesture – Tichý could not act for the greater good, or even for his own, but only at the behest of some interior necessity, what seems on closer inspection to be a carefully orchestrated expression of compulsive self-interest.

In fact, the photographs really seem to have been produced as a direct result of Tichy’s will, as if no camera was needed. They are, in every sense, objects of desire, with the photograph serving as a fetish, both in Freudian terms and also, but just as importantly, in the sense of what might be called sympathetic magic, a way of creating a relationship. As a result there is a deep poignancy in viewing these photographs. The technical defects caused by his primitive (often self-made) camera equipment is a way of visualising the distance that existed between Tichý and other people – and women in particular, caught in all moods, at various ages, in all states of dress and undress. Tichý has made voyeurism into an art form, a life’s work and somehow into a metaphor for the existential distance that separates us. It’s true however that looking at these photographs can often be an uncomfortable experience, where the viewer is drawn into Tichý’s voyeurism by his clandestine photographic technique. Some are awkward glimpses of public nudity (a voluptuous young woman spied in the act of undressing, for example) but also what at first give the impression of being ordinary scenes can be rendered with a definite erotic charge by virtue of Tichý’s looking, by the very insistence of his gaze. With all his photographs (and his ostensibly more than others) we get to occupy the photographer’s position, we become the voyeur. At the same time, they raise the question whether or not this apparently fanatical need to photograph women, to catch glimpses of bare flesh in states of exertion or exposure, should be considered a form of art practice at all – perhaps they are just the efforts of a man driven to extremes of loneliness and longing where the pictures become an index of his “outsider” status, his inability to belong.

But also, as if by some strange combination of intuition or accident, Tichý shows a deep (and uniquely expressed) understanding of the photograph as object, insisting upon material attributes. Originally trained as a painter, he seems to regard the print as only the raw material for what a photograph can become. Working it like a sculptor would, he often uses a pencil or pen to emphasise (re-emphasise, even) the graphic qualities of a photograph (the image) – outlining the curve of a woman’s breast or shading a hairstyle (those quintessential signifiers of the feminine). He can treat his prints with indifference: they are careworn, spotted and stained, with a patina of usage and abandonment. After all, the image is not just the print, but something else entirely, something much more elusive. These photographs are in effect the very substance of his obsession and yet, regardless of whether or not they are the outcome of some private compulsion they also carry with them a sophisticated moral agenda. They point to the seemingly unbridgeable distance that can exist between people. So Tichý’s own alienation, of which his photography is a “proof” of sorts, can be like an unflinching mirror for that moment of shared dilemma when we are obliged to confront a perhaps fundamentally unknowable Other. That is what raises his work above the merely pathological – in short that is what makes it art.